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Popular Science reported last week that a "weird crystal"—a "salt made from cobalt"—can "absorb all the oxygen in a room," and, more crucially, release all that oxygen later, at which point it can safely be breathed.
I will confess that I initially thought this sounded more like some terrifying new air-weapon: after all, if "just a spoonful of the stuff can suck up all the oxygen in a room," then you're looking at a very potent, seemingly instantaneous method for causing mass suffocation. Drop a few spoonfuls of these crystals into a building's ventilation system, and... Well, you get the idea.
But the actual, far more productive implications are incredible (assuming further tests with the material pan out). The University of Southern Denmark-based researchers suggest, for example, that this could revolutionize SCUBA diving, "as the material can absorb oxygen from the water around the diver and supply the diver with it," meaning that "scuba divers could potentially leave their tanks at home," gearing up with just a few grains of salt. "
Extrapolate from this for a moment, however, and imagine all of the other confined spatial environments in which oxygen-emitting cobalt salts could upend conventional thinking. Long-term submarine missions; underwater scientific bases or other submerged structures of any kind; mines, collapsed buildings, and other underground spaces; or, perhaps most interestingly, even offworld space missions could all be equipped with radically minimalized oxygen storage systems, reducing costs.
You can thus imagine some strange new everyday reality several decades from now in which deep-sea divers or long-haul astronauts turn to a chewing gum-sized pack of salt crystals which they pop open as needed for emergency oxygen.
Think of this portable atmospheric crystal as the gateway to new spatial possibilities, letting us bring our atmospheres with us in just a few handfuls of salt.